MAIN ARTICLE -
TRONDHEIM, NORWAY/ We throw out a quarter of the food we
buy. New attitudes and new technology could shrink the mountain of waste from
“Let me see, that comes to a total of just under 1200 kroner,”
says Børge Andre Roum, age 27.
The way of a freegan
The young man has just made a rough estimate of his personal
consumption - including food, for the past four weeks. It lies just over his
monthly average spend because of a few train tickets and a donation of NOK 270
to a charity.
In spite of his remarkably low consumption, he lacks
nothing. His cupboards are full of dry foods in unopened packages that other
people have thrown out, while the freezer is full of more food he has found. He
only goes shopping if he is really short of something.
The reason for all this is that four years ago, Børge made a
personal choice; he became a freegan; someone who, for the sake of the
environment, lives off what other people throw away. He finds food, well packaged
– in fact, usually in its original packaging – in supermarket waste containers,
or simply past their sell-by date on the shelves.
“I have always been environmentally involved and concerned
about the north/south problem. It is a matter of fact that in the rich part of
the world we are consuming resources at the expense of the poor.”
Nowadays, nobody would dispute the fact that dumping
perfectly edible food is unethical and anything but sustainable behaviour.
But why do we throw away so much food? Are the grocery
chains collaborating with the advertising industry to push us into
overconsumption? Have we become uncritical food snobs? Or does food simply not
have a long enough shelf life?
What to do?
“The problem is a matter of attitudes, market mechanisms and
purchasing power. In the western world, one factor is probably that we can
afford to throw away food, but we also the throw it away because we believe
that we have to because it doesn’t keep well. But often it is perfectly OK.”
These observations come from Jan Ola Strandhagen, a research
scientist and logistics expert at SINTEF Technology and Society. He is one of
many who wish to do something about the growing mountain of food waste from
their kitchens. And he has good reason to do so: according to figures on the
website of Tristam Stuart, a British scientist and author of “Waste”, between
20 and 40 percent of all fruit and vegetables are thrown away before they even
reach the food-store shelves – largely because they do not meet the aesthetic
criteria of the supermarkets.
On top of that, we have the food wasted by customers and
restaurants. Halving the amount of food wasted by consumers could lift hungry
people out of the shroud of undernourishment,” says the scientist.
Not all is lost
For Strandhagen, “the good news is that a third of the
world’s supply of food could be saved before it goes into the waste bin. Much
of it could be utilised with the aid of new technology and changes in attitude.
We owe society that much.”
Support for this claim comes from the political world;
according to Norway’s Ministry of Agriculture and Food, reducing food waste
ought to be one of the most highly prioritised areas for conserving the
environment in Norway and elsewhere in the world, for the petroleum-rich
Norwegians are among the worst wasters of food.
In 2010, the Østfold Research Institute carried out a survey
of 100 randomly selected households in Fredrikstad in collaboration with Mepex
Consult. The survey looked at what sort of food they threw out and how it was
packaged, and found that no less than 54 percent of it was edible. Fruit,
vegetables, bakery products and meat were among the items most often discarded.
Before the supermarket
The SINTEF scientists’ contribution to the fight against
food waste has nothing to do with our hopeless relationship with food: they
wish to take up the struggle using weapons such as logistics, simulations, robotisation
and new ways of thinking about food supplies.
The most important challenge is to ensure that food does not
run out of shelf life while it is still in the warehouse or is being
transported from A to B and on to C. The fresher food is when it arrives in the
store, the greater is the likelihood that it will be sold and eaten before it
reaches its sell-by date and ends up as waste. Every hour counts.
“The technology required to ensure optimal deliveries of
food has already been developed, and is being used by several industries. What
is new is that it now costs so little to adopt that it will hardly affect
prices in food-stores,” says Strandhagen.
A better system
More advanced production systems can also help to reduce the
food waste mountain: robots that can pack foodstuffs in different package sizes
in the same production line are another of the solutions suggested by the
scientists. Until recently this has been an expensive process, but now these
robots are controlled by software that is no dearer than what we can find in a
“Families may consist of anything from one person and a cat
to immigrant families with two generations living under one roof, so it is only
reasonable that food should be packaged in different sizes according to need
But if we are to exploit this technology, we need to have
more information regarding what consumers wish and what they actually buy in
The chain problem
Today, however, it is transport economics rather than demand
that controls food distribution. The trailers are filled as full as possible
and deliver their loads to whoever is on the list of recipients, irrespective
of what they actually need. In the eyes of the scientists, the flow of
information between the individual links in the “food chain” is far from ideal.
“If the food retail sector would share its knowledge of
consumers’ buying patterns, and just as importantly, how much ends up in its
own waste bins, it would be possible to produce food with surgical precision,”
“Last but not least, such information would also influence
the logistics that decide when and where, and in what quantities, individual
products are delivered to retail outlets,” pointed Strandhagen.
For market reasons, the major food-store chains are not keen
to share information about what they sell and the quantities of wares that they
have in store.
“Sales campaigns can be good for highly aware shoppers who
buy items on offer and put the food in the freezer. But we know that when a
supermarket runs a campaign for a particular type of cheese, less is sold of
other types, and there is a greater chance that these will pass their sell-by
date without be sold. In any case, many people are tempted to buy in large
amounts, which in turn makes it more likely that the food will not actually be
eaten,” explains Dreyer.
While supermarket chains keep their campaign offers secret
as long as they can, it will be difficult to adapt deliveries to the ideal. But
wholesalers are also involved in the game. They are reluctant to share their
knowledge of what is actually being bought with their food producers who supply
Confirming the danger
The reason for speculation is that the wholesalers want to
keep their purchasing prices as low as possible. Meanwhile the suppliers are
producing food in large volumes instead of producing the amounts that consumers
actually want, in order to utilise their production machinery at maximum
However, the result is that the shops are sent too much
produce, and they in turn generate unnecessary food waste.
However, a technology does exist that is capable of
revealing our shopping habits down to the last detail and thereby help to
reduce the excess volume of goods in shops.
Using last trends
The technology is known as RFID, or Radio Frequency Identification
Device, and it is ideal as a means of breaking the ground for a flow of goods
that is so organic that it might have been created by nature itself.
Today, it is being used for everything from keycards to
tollway access chips. If RFID is adopted by the food distribution industry, it
could help to bring about more environmentally friendly food consumption
Dreyer explains the technology by comparing it with
barcodes. RFID goes a little bit further - the barcode is replaced by a
readable numerical code which is loaded into a radio chip. The code can be made
as long as we wish, which means that it can contain as much information as we
Codes for saving
Any code reader within range that is capable of receiving or
reading the signal will register the chip’s unique ID. Furthermore, it can be
located inside a product so that it is invisible. In this way, the tiny chip
can reveal a consumer’s shopping habits; give us a complete overview of where
each individual package is in the food distribution chain, and how long it has
been lying in the warehouse or the cold counter.
”RFID technology lets us know exactly what is being
produced, sold and even eaten. This in turn enables us to tailor production, packaging,
distribution and warehousing so that less is wasted. We can have a complete
overview of the distribution line, so that the shelf life of a foodstuff is not
”used up” while it is still in storage or being transported,” says Heidi
Dreyer, as she sketches a simple example:
”It is also possible to combine the use of GPS and RFID in
such a way that we can monitor the flow of goods in real time. This would give
us both fresher food and less waste; a win-win situation.”
But… where are the solutions?
All the same, these are solutions for the future, and they
would require a return system for the RFID chips and a readiness to change
among wholesalers and retailers. But, what about the consumers? Have we become
uncritical food snobs with enormous stomachs? What should we be doing to reduce
our food waste?
Young Børge Andre Roum is in no doubt about his
own choice: “When I found out how much food is actually thrown away – perfectly
usable food – becoming a freegan was an obvious choice. We have already used
both resources and energy for production and transport; putting even more
energy into destroying food makes environmental problems even worse,” he concluded.